If summer is the only time you think about exploring U.S. national parks, you’re missing out. Some national parks are actually at their best in winter—think Death Valley or Joshua Tree. For other national parks, winter is considered to be the off-season, but that’s not a reason for visitors to go into hibernation.
In fact, you might have more fun if you travel in a season when you’re not fighting crowds and dealing with park traffic. Not to mention, nature’s still beautiful in the winter months too. Read on for the 8 great national parks for winter adventures.
Voyageurs National Park In The Winter – Watch the northern lights
Heading north is the surest way to find winter. At its location along the U.S.-Canadian border, Voyageurs National Park is an excellent spot to enjoy all kinds of winter activities—from snowmobiling and ice fishing to snowshoeing and skiing. But the park also presents a more unique winter opportunity: the chance to see the aurora borealis, or northern lights.
The aurora borealis lights up northern skies whenever solar flares are active and the night sky is clear and dark. (Winter nights, with their long hours of darkness and low humidity, provide ideal viewing conditions.) Some of the best viewing spots in the park are the Rainy Lake Visitors Center or any campsite along the lake (some of these sites are accessible in winter by snowmobile or on foot). Check out the park’s website for more info and a northern lights forecast.
Where: International Falls, Minnesota
Gear you’ll need: Warm clothing and winter boots (and winter camping gear if you plan to camp)
Rocky Mountain National Park In The Winter – Strap on some snowshoes
Rocky Mountain National Park abounds with hiking trails and while the trails don’t close in winter, they’re definitely harder to navigate when they’re covered in snow. That’s why snowshoeing is a popular winter activity at this park. Strike out on your own or join a free ranger-led snowshoe hike. These hikes are offered January through March depending on weather conditions.
Due to their popularity, ranger-led snowshoe hikes require reservations. Learn more about them—and book your spot—here. If you don’t have your own snowshoeing equipment, rentals are available in the nearby communities of Estes Park or Grand Lake.
Where: Estes Park, Colorado or Grand Lake, Colorado
Gear you’ll need: snowshoes, waterproof boots, poles (optional)
Yosemite National Park In The Winter – Go ice skating
Ice skating has been a popular winter activity at Yosemite National Park since 1928. (The park’s now-famous ice rink got its start as a flooded parking lot!) Curry Village Ice Rink is in the heart of the famous Yosemite Valley and offers amazing views of Half Dome. The ice rink is open daily from mid-December to mid-March depending on weather conditions, and tickets are required.
You can bring your own skates or rent them rink-side. When you need to warm-up, there’s a firepit with benches and a concessions stand where you can buy hot chocolate and other treats.
Where: Yosemite Valley, California
Gear you’ll need: ice skates
Mount Rainier National Park In The Winter – Stay at cozy lodge
Like the idea of exploring a national park in winter but not keen on camping? Mount Rainier National Park has an inn that’s open year-round that’s the perfect jumping-off point for winter hiking, snowshoeing, and sledding. National Park Inn offers 25 guest rooms, a full-service dining room, and a general store.
The area’s abundant snowfall—measured in feet!—means you’ll rarely have to worry about not having enough snow for winter activities. And when you don’t feel like trekking along the trails or being out in the cold, you can get comfy by the lodge’s fireplace or enjoy the view of Mount Rainier from the front porch.
Where: Ashford, Washington
Gear you’ll need: Gear for whatever winter activity you plan to do
Acadia National Park In The Winter – Hit the cross-country ski trails
Acadia National Park is known for its miles of carriage roads, historic thoroughfares that are now open only to bike and foot traffic during the warmer months. But in the winter, these scenic roads become cross-country ski trails. When there’s enough snow (at least 6 inches), volunteers from the Acadia Winter Trails Association groom these trails for both classic and skate skiing. If conditions are right, the park can have up to 32 miles of groomed cross-country ski trails!
Cross-country skiing is also allowed on unplowed park roads but the conditions are more unpredictable and these roads are also open to snowmobiles. Bring your own ski equipment or rent gear from nearby communities. Also, before you go, check the trail conditions at the Acadia Winter Trails Association site.
Where: Bar Harbor, Maine
Gear you’ll need: Cross-country skis, ski boots, poles
Glacier National Park In The Winter – Go ice fishing
The scenery at Glacier National Park is stunning in any season so even just a drive or hike through this park in winter is worth it. But if you’re an ice fishing enthusiast, there’s even more reason to visit this park during the colder seasons. Glacier is home to more than 700 lakes and ponds (although not all are accessible or open to fishing). Check with the park to see when and where you can go ice fishing or contact a local outfitter.
Where: West Glacier, Montana
Gear you’ll need: Fishing gear
Cuyahoga Valley National Park In The Winter – Go sledding
There are plenty of winter activities at Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio—ice fishing, hiking, skiing—but one of the most popular things to do is go sledding! In the Kendall Hills area of the park there’s a well-loved sledding hill with separate areas for sleds and toboggans. Dress warmly and bring your own sled! You can access the sledding area from the Pine Hollow, Crow Foot Gully, and Little Meadow parking lots.
Where: Brecksville, Ohio
Gear you’ll need: sled
Yellowstone National Park In The Winter – Take a snowmobile tour
The incredible sights in Yellowstone National Park like Old Faithful and other geysers don’t close for the winter, but the roads that reach them do. Once the snow flies, however, there’s still a way to see these wonders: take a snowcoach or a guided snowmobile tour. Trails usually open for snowmobiling in mid-December (or whenever there’s enough snow) and close by mid-March. Find a list of authorized snowcoach and snowmobile tour companies on Yellowstone’s website.
Where: Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Gear you’ll need: Winter clothing, a snowmobile (provided with a guided tour)